In the Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, the capital city of Malta, is a darkened room. In it lies just one object: a small, brown clay figure of a woman asleep. She is lying on her side, nestling in the wooden framework of her bed and the rush mattress beneath her. She has been asleep for around five thousand years.
The sleeper has her own hypnotic beauty; she is naked to the waist, although you can see that her bell-shaped skirt has traces of red ochre and a fringe where it covers her enormous rounded legs. Her arms — the right forearm curled underneath her head, the other draped across her breasts — are similarly lavish and lush. Why did someone make her? What was her purpose? What was she supposed to represent?
No-one knows. The information board inside her display case notes: “May represent death or eternal sleep.” She was found in one of the grave sites in the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni, an underground burial chamber that dates back to around 3000 BC.
So, it is true she was found in a place of death, but she looks like Life to me. She looks like the essence of fertility. She looks like she could bear not just the babies you need for your tribe to continue, but will make sure enough crops ripen for you to last another winter.
The Maltese temples built on the island between 3800 and 2500 BC are probably the world’s oldest free-standing buildings. The Tarxien temples close to where she was found have altars that were probably used for animal sacrifices, as well as spiral patterns carved or painted on the walls. So those neolithic people had some sort of religious belief. The Hypogeum, hewn out of the rock below the ground, might have been a place of worship as well as burial.
One of the rooms in the Hypogeum — the Oracle Room — seems to have been deliberately carved to create resonance: the sound of your voice or a musical instrument will bounce off the stone, compounding and magnifying with its own echoes, over and over, for several seconds. (There are some interesting — and sometimes terrifying — recordings from the Old Temples Study Foundation here.) This acoustic reverberation might help you achieve a meditative or receptive state, possibly as part of a ceremony of dream incubation. Perhaps in the company of your oracle, under the painted spirals of red ochre on the roof of the room, you could communicate with your dead or the divine.
We can never know. Whoever made the Sleeping Lady, as she is popularly called, left no documentation or instruction leaflet behind.
To me, she is almost visibly dreaming.
I did not expect to be so moved by her. The picture above is not the greatest quality — the room is dark, after all — but I was lucky enough to meet her alone and spend a quiet time with her. The Sleeping Lady is calm, she is still. She isn’t waking any time soon. She sleeps how I sleep, with my right arm under my head, all our thousands of years apart. Perhaps, for a moment, we dreamed the same dreams.